Americans should all feel a little bit bad for Henry Winkler. Why you ask? Well, he is a Yale educated actor with loads of classical training and his biggest hit was spending 10 years on a TV show playing the Fonz. This was the smooth talking, leather jacket wearing guy who could always get the girls and teach Richie Cunningham how to be cool.
Winkler has always had a good sense of humor about his glory days but he did try even back in then to do more dramatic work. One such example was an American Christmas Carol made in 1979 for ABC Television.
And while he and the production put forth a good effort, in the end I can’t really recommend the picture. It isn’t terrible just kind of slow with poor production values and some odd choices that bothered me.
The new take on the story is it is set in small town America in the 1930’s. This would be fine but then they use a whole bunch of Canadian actors to play the parts. That annoyed me a little bit. I mean if you are going to have all Canadians in your cast call it a A Canadian Christmas Carol! (I just can’t get the accents I want in Christmas Carol it seems unless your name is Alistair Sim!). They also change all the names around and have characters refer to the Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. They are familiar with the story and it gets a little meta when Winkler’s character is talking to one of the ghosts about the ghosts who visited Scrooge ‘it’s not going to work you know’
Here is an old television promo for it. You only need to watch the first minute or so of this video.
|Henry Winkler||Benedict Slade|
|Dorian Harewood||Matt Reeves|
|Susan Hogan||Helen Brewster|
|Michael Wincott||Choir Leader|
|Brett Matthew Davidson||Orphan|
|Tammy Bourne||Sarah Thatcher|
|Chris Cragg||Jon Thatcher|
|James Douglas||Sam Perkins|
|Arlene Duncan||Jennie Reeves|
Scrooge- Winkler is fine with his performance but the writing, makeup and direction don’t do him any favors . I can tell he is trying but they make Slade (that’s the Scrooge characters name in this) kind of like Prince John in Robin Hood. I mean this guy is a bad dude and you guys know I like the more villainous Scrooge’s best. Here’s the difference in the book Scrooge is able to be a miser because he does not interact with others. He doesn’t even know the smallest detail about his own clerk. As he points out to the Benefactor his ‘occupation consumes him’.
In this version Scrooge is a Repot man which means at the beginning he goes from house to house repossessing items from people (on Christmas Eve no less). This feels almost Gestapo mean. Especially when we get a scene where he confiscates all the books of a store and rips them out from the bindings . It made me practically physically ill to see those beautiful books destroyed like that. He also repossess a piano from the orphanage that he grew up in until he was adopted.
Differences- There are almost too many to mention them all. Of course, we have the change in setting and time. Scrooge was an orphan rescued by a man named Mr Brewster who teaches him how to work with wood and build furniture. (This is all seen by Past who is the man from the bookstore seen above).
Slade grows up and wants to implement the moving assembly line to make chairs and Brewster thinks it isn’t right to make such a shoddy product. It’s another movie where darn old capitalism is the villain. It’s like the ‘Gold, gold, gold’ song in Pocahontas. Groan. Dickens is so much more subtle. He does not condemn the earning of money but just a man who has removed Christ and other people from his life.
The Marley character is actually a teacher or mentor to Scrooge and teaches him ‘the ways of business’ and his name is Mr Latham. His scene is fairly forgettable. It’s kind of like the Mr Jorkin bit in Alistair Sim but in that case Jorkin was more of a secondary influence not a mentor.
Slade fires his clerk Bob Thatcher because he suggests to him that a good business investment might be opening up the old mill that Mr Brewster used to own. Slade’s reaction seems extreme and it turns out that Thatcher’s son Jon needs to go to Australia to see a doctor for his condition.
All of the ghosts are people Slade confiscated possessions from earlier in the film, which could have been clever but never quite works.
The rest of the story is what you would expect until Future comes. They cast Dorian Harewood as the last ghost and he is a wonderful actor but in an all white movie it bothered me a little bit that the only black man we see is the part that is usually a grim reaper type. It’s such an offensive racial caricature to have the angelic white people and the token looming grimacing black man. Future isn’t a villain per say but he is usually symbolic of death and it just annoyed me. (It’s made even worse that when Future is introduced Slade’s radio goes bonkers and starts playing hip hop music…Groan.
Also in Future there is an auction where Slade’s possessions are bought by vengeful townsfolk and then burned in a big fire. How is that the Christmas spirit to stoop to Slade’s level? They burn things that could be used by people, could help people which is almost as bad as Scrooge destroying the books. The Finney version made the same mistake. Christmas is supposed to make people kind and forgiving, not vengeful and vitriolic.
Strengths- The strengths are the acting. Like I said, Winkler tries his darndest. It’s a shame he wasn’t given better writing, makeup and direction.
The sets and costumes are fine and there are some nice messages throughout. I like what they were trying to do but it just doesn’t work.
Weaknesses- There are so many problems. Mainly it creates a tonal problem when we have Slade interacting with people, taking their things and destroying books (I hated to watch that!). Scrooge is supposed to be making only Bob and maybe Fred’s life miserable. Other than that he is terrified of poverty and the world, not out there taking pianos from orphanages. It’s just an entirely different character and one that is way less likely to be moved by the 3 visits.
Also, I had a problem with the casting of Future and the way that was handled but mostly it is slow and feels dare I say it, a little boring. All the stuff about the moving assembly line and modernization dragged and took us away from Christmas and the message of the story.
So yeah this one I would say skip. Poor, poor Henry Winkler.